WINNIPEG – A chief of staff to former Manitoba premier Greg Selinger denied accusations Friday that he didn’t address complaints from two government workers who say they were groped and tickled by a longtime NDP cabinet minister.
Michael Balagus said he was never told about the formal complaints by the two women who said they were sexually harassed by Stan Struthers in 2010 and 2011.
“At no time did (communications director) Jay Branch or any other supervisor bring to my attention the appalling actions involving Stan Struthers,” Balagus wrote in an emailed statement.
“As the chief of staff at the time of these incidents I deeply regret that their experience was not properly recognized or dealt with.”
Balagus declined to be interviewed. Friday afternoon, Balagus was removed from his current role as chief of staff to Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“I was shocked to hear of women accusing my chief of staff of not taking their concerns seriously while he was working at the Manitoba legislature,” Horwath said in a written statement. “He’ll be on a leave of absence until I can determine whether or not it’s appropriate for him to continue on our team.”
Several women have come forward this week to say Struthers, a NDP cabinet minister from 2003 to 2014, tickled them, groped them or made sexual remarks.
Shannon VanRaes, who worked with Struthers, said she was on a flight with him when he asked if she liked being tickled. VanRaes said she said no, but Struthers put his hand under her skirt and later made sexual comments.
Joelle Saltel-Allard said Struthers used to touch her when she was his press secretary and one time put his hand on her knee and talked about sex acts he would enjoy.
Both women say they lodged a complaint with Branch and were told he took the matters to Balagus. Both say they were later informed they would have to develop thicker skin and put up with Struthers’ behaviour.
Numerous attempts to reach Branch, who worked as a journalist for The Canadian Press more than a decade ago, were unsuccessful.
Saltel-Allard says she continues to believe Branch took her complaint to Balagus.
“I’m terribly disappointed with the statement that Balagus didn’t receive the complaint,” Saltel-Allard wrote in a message. “I stand by my director and I believe that he relayed the information.”
VanRaes said that when she met with Balagus just before leaving her job, she mentioned Struthers was one of the reasons she was resigning.
“I said no one had dealt with Stan Struthers and when I said that, I took (Balagus) to understand what I meant,” VanRaes said Friday.
“Balagus didn’t ask any followup questions. He seemed to understand what I was referring to.”
Struthers has rejected interview requests and issued an apologetic written statement Thursday.
“I apologize for any interactions I have had that have been inappropriate and that have caused any person to feel disrespected or uncomfortable,” he wrote. “My intention was never to treat women as anything other than equal and respected.”
Struthers was first elected to the legislature in 1995 and held various cabinet portfolios that included conservation, agriculture, finance and municipal government. He did not run for re-election in 2016.
Another government communications worker, Julie Kentner, came forward Friday to say Struthers tickled her during a meeting in 2013 while they were discussing a document.
“I was sitting at a table with him in his office, side by side … when he reached over and tickled me,” Kentner said.
Kentner said she told her supervisors and said they took her seriously, but she later decided not to pursue the matter formally.
“At the time, at the place, it just wasn’t kind of worth the time, which is kind of a really sad thing to say, actually.”